Is placenta consumption the next step in green parenting or is this taking recycling too far? Becky Dickinson discovers why the humble afterbirth is gaining a following.
If you were to ask a pregnant woman what she was most looking forward to eating after giving birth, the answer would probably be blue cheese, seafood, pâté, or anything else that’s been off the menu for nine months. But growing numbers of women are tucking into their placentas as an after birth snack.
Shocking as it may sound, placenta consumption is not a new idea. In different parts of the world, women have been eating their placentas for centuries. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the placenta is essential in re-balancing a new mother. It’s said to enhance her energy levels and boost her milk supply. Many animals also eat their placenta to help stop postpartum bleeding and speed recovery. And in parts of Africa and Indonesia, the organ is given a ceremonial burial.
The placenta, which is attached to the lining of the womb during pregnancy, protects and nourishes the developing foetus. It disposes of toxic waste and keeps the unborn baby’s blood supply separate from the mother’s. It also secretes vital hormones needed to maintain the pregnancy and prepare for breastfeeding. As birth approaches, it floods the baby with antibodies. In short, the placenta is the unborn baby’s life support system. It holds our babies in our wombs until we can hold them in our arms.
To simply toss it into a bin labelled ‘clinical waste,’ seems a little, well, wasteful, not to mention ungrateful. Yet, in recent years, the practice of placentophagy, or ingestion of the placenta, has gained a following in the UK.
Advocates say placenta consumption replaces lost nutrients and hormones, fights fatigue and protects against post natal depression. This is due to the rich concentration of vitamins, minerals and iron. The placenta contains high levels of vitamin B6 and the stress reducing hormone, CRH. Studies have shown there is link between post natal depression and a severe lack of both B6 and CRH. The placenta is also packed with stem cells and cytokines which play a key role in healing and tissue repair, as well as oxytocin, the hormone entwined with breastfeeding.
Lynnea Shrief, 29, from Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, is the Founder and Director of IPEN, the Independent Placenta Encapsulation Network. Lynnea’s interest in the subject started during her second pregnancy. ‘I just knew I didn’t want to throw my placenta away,’ she says. After the birth of her son, Roman, in 2009, Lynnea placed a small piece of her placenta onto her gums, to allow the hormones and nutrients to be absorbed. She blended another piece of placenta with fresh berries to make a smoothie, which she drank. She says, ‘within 10 hours, my milk had come in, my bleeding had almost stopped and I felt completely energised.’’
Placenta smoothies are now a popular option among women looking for a post natal pick-me-up. But if you prefer your placenta to look less, well, like something you’ve just given birth to, then other more palatable options are also available including: tinctures, creams, teas and pills.
Placenta encapsulation is the process of turning the placenta into easy to swallow capsules. This is normally done within 48 hours of the birth. The placenta is washed and dried, then steamed with lemon, ginger and green chilli. It is then dehydrated using a food dehydrator (or placed in an oven for 8-10 hours until crisp) before being ground into a powder and ‘encapsulated’ into empty vegetable capsules.
The process is usually carried out by a trained specialist. However DIY kits are also available and come with full instructions. A healthy placenta will produce an average of 120 capsules. These should be taken two to four times a day for the first six weeks, and then whenever necessary. Leftover capsules can be frozen and used whenever there is a hormonal imbalance, such as around the time of menstruation. The pills can even be kept until the menopause.
Natasha Rogerson, 30, from London, is a firm believer in placenta encapsulation. She says, ‘I have a history of depression and had been mindful of my risk of PND. My mother had suffered from this after the birth of my brother and even in the last few months of pregnancy I had been feeling anxious and tearful.’
Following the birth of her son, Billy, in December 2012, Natasha’s placenta was turned into a smoothie. To her surprise, it wasn’t revolting at all. She says, ‘It was delicious and it did not taste of meat, or blood, at all.’ The rest of Natasha’s placenta was used to make capsules and the new mum was delighted with the results. ‘I credit a good recovery, emotionally and physically, in good part to the smoothie and pills. Despite a traumatic birth, I haven’t had so much as a whiff of PND. Another benefit is that my breast milk came in quickly and easily. A less important, but nice, side effect is how well everyone says I look!’
Natasha isn’t alone. Mum of two, Krishna Bakrani, 40, from Guildford in Surrey, also swears by placenta encapsulation. Krishna suffered from severe post natal depression following the birth of her first child, Sitara, in 2007. ‘I felt tearful, exhausted and overwhelmed,’ she says. So when Krishna fell pregnant with her second child, she dreaded the feelings returning. Thankfully, she had a much better experience, which she attributes to her placenta. Krishna describes feeling a surge of energy and happiness, just 30 minutes after drinking a placenta smoothie. She also took placenta capsules and says the difference it made was amazing. ‘I didn’t feel depressed at all. I had loads more energy than I’d had the first time round. I also healed far quicker after the birth.’
Krishna’s son was born at home. But placenta encapsulation is equally possible following a hospital birth. A note should be made in the birth plan that the placenta is due to be retained for consumption. Then all that is needed is a sterile container and a cool bag, so that the organ can be taken away after the delivery. It can then be stored in the fridge until collected by a specialist.
Placenta encapsulation on the NHS may still be a long way off, but growing numbers of women are discovering the benefits for themselves. After all, we recycle most other things, why not our own placentas?
✽ More information is available from the Independent Placenta Encapsulation Network (IPEN) placentanetwork.com